The hour-long question-and-answer session, moderated by Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and broadcast via Facebook.com, touched upon areas in which Obama has focused his energies — improving education, reforming health care and developing alternative energy sources. All require a focus on new technologies, he said.
Technology can reduce health care costs by millions of dollars, numbers that Obama said he hoped would be apparent in the next five years. Technology can streamline cumbersome paperwork and help coordinate patient care, he said.
Providing incentives for a community hospital to get a system online that would allow for information sharing and elimination of duplicate tests needs to be a top priority, he said. The VA health system already has achieved huge cost savings through its online system, he said.
Facebook employees who attended the town hall emphasized the event itself was a product of new technology.
"It's a very historical point in American culture because in this Internet age, we can have this discussion with the president in this open forum on Facebook — live," Joey Primiani said after the town hall meeting.
"Anybody can ask him questions on the spot; anybody can ask any question and get an immediate answer," he said.
In the wide-ranging talk, Obama fielded questions about the national debt, the economic recovery, education, health care reform, immigration and renewable energy. Repeatedly, he struck the note of achieving progress through "a balanced approach."
He didn't hesitate to criticize the Republican budget plan put forth by U.S. Rep Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, which eschews tax increases and would cut 70 percent of the clean-energy budget, 25 percent from education and 30 percent from transportation, he said.
"I guess you could call that bold. I would call that shortsighted. … Nothing is easier than solving the problem on the backs of people who are poor or people who are powerless or don't have lobbyists or don't have clout," he said.
Obama said the country has made progress in its recovery from the recession, but there is more to do. In response to a question about the challenges to first-time homebuyers, he said the housing market is still the biggest drag on economic recovery.
"We are living through as tumultuous a time as I certainly have seen in my lifetime," Obama said. "When I came into office, the No. 1 job was preventing us from getting into another Great Depression."
In one of his few comments during the event, Zuckerberg praised Obama's Race to the Top education-reform program as one of the most important things the administration has done.
Obama said he wants education reform to be part of his legacy. Reforms that advance mathematics and science and encourage women and minorities to get into technology fields are investments in the country's economic future; they are where ideas and innovations will come from, he said.
Before Obama arrived in Palo Alto, about 100 low-income people and their supporters gathered in front of Palo Alto City Hall to tell personal stories of unemployment and minimum-wage jobs. They called for deficit solutions in Washington, D.C., that preserve social programs such as child care, food and housing assistance.
"Mr. President, I'd like you to have compassion for the masses," said 58-year-old Eric Peterson, a San Jose homeowner who recently took a minimum-wage job after being laid off from a technology company two years ago.
In the search for employment, "I had to keep lowering the wage that I'd work for until it got to the point where I would take anything," said Peterson, who now earns $8 an hour sorting packages through a temporary agency, with no health insurance.
Peterson, who exhausted his unemployment benefits, said he and his disabled wife were able to save their house from foreclosure only with the support of family, friends and assistance from Sacred Heart Community Services of San Jose.
Though the president was not in Palo Alto for the low-wage workers' morning rally, he encouraged Americans to pull together during the town hall meeting, returning to his "Yes We Can" campaign message.
"We've just got more work to do. Don't get frustrated and cynical about our democracy. Just remember we've been through tougher times before. We've always come out on top," he said.
The only way to accomplish the vision is by people taking part and remaining active in the political process, he said.
Several attendees said that message stood out most in Obama's town hall discussion.
"He made a good point that it's not all up to him. It's a collective effort of the nation, and we all have to do our part too," Nicole Sallie, an attorney, said.
At the start of the town hall, Obama — who is one of the most popular figures on Facebook and has 19 million "likes" — took off his suit jacket in folksy gesture. He invited the usually T-shirted Zuckerberg, who was also wearing a suit, to do the same.
At the end of the event, Zuckerberg evened the score for having to put on the dress shirt, jacket and tie. He gave Obama a parting gift: a Facebook hoodie.